Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Rachel Ashwell, founder of the home furnishings retailer Shabby Chic.
To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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Bryant: What would your employees say you’re like as a boss?
Ashwell: I think you’d hear that I’m consistent. I think you’d hear that I need to feel safe.
Bryant: What does that mean?
Ashwell: That means that I need to know that we’re not living beyond our means. I very much live within my means, and I’m not big on borrowing money or any of that kind of thing. And that if I feel safe, I’m pretty good at not micromanaging. Because my feeling is that, for the most part, I think my company is thought of as being quite small.
People who are doing their jobs — whether it’s a designer, whether it’s a controller, whether it’s the manager of a store — are carefully chosen so that I respect them and they can do their thing. But I don’t feel safe if I see non-thinking.
To me, it’s not about some handbook that we have. Because, as we all know with business, so often these decisions, whether it’s about a customer, whether it’s about a trend, whatever it is, it’s usually the things outside of that book where decisions have to be made. And when I don’t see people thinking, if I lose it, that’s where I lose it and that’s where I don’t feel safe.
Bryant: So how do you communicate that?
Ashwell: I don’t believe in shouting. I think I’m thought of as handling issues in a respectful manner, because at the end of the day, especially when you’re dealing with a small company, people come to work for me. People aren’t particularly getting rich. It’s not like this huge stock-option program. It’s usually because they believe in me and they think what I do is really beautiful and a nice place to be.
So if they do make a mistake or don’t handle things in what I think is the correct way or one that reflects my values, I’m not the type of person who’s going to throw somebody under a bus. I’ll talk to them and I’ll explain why that didn’t work.
Where I do get frustrated — and where it might get to the point of we’ve hit a wall and maybe there’s not a way to save this relationship, to get back the respect and the trust — is if I don’t see accountability of owning something, or if I see the same thing happening over and over again.
Bryant: Can you talk more about what it’s like to work for you?
Ashwell: I like to know people. I mean, it could be the checkout clerk at the supermarket, quite frankly. I like to know what their lives are about. I find that drama escalates because of technology. I said, when our company was bigger, that e-mail cannot be the only way that we’re going to communicate. I mean, I think that can be a big downfall, truthfully, because e-mails can really come across not the way that they’re supposed to. We’ve all done it. We’ve received them wrong and we’ve sent them wrong. So I think communication is really important.
In Los Angeles, where my corporate offices are and where my flagship store is, I cook Christmas dinner. I have everybody over at my house. I really find that that type of stuff is very important. It’s showing my staff that, yeah, I peel my own potatoes and I’m setting this table for you because I respect you as a person. I’ve taken your hat off as my packer or my controller. And, to me, you’re a human being. And if we have problems, I’m going to treat you as a human being. I find that type of thing really, really helpful.
Bryant: How would you say your leadership and management style has evolved over time?
Ashwell: Well, I’m ashamed to say, because I don’t really like this about myself, that I’m as emotional as I ever was. I’m not an angry or screamy person, but I shed tears when I just feel the frustration. I’d like to think I can cure that at some point. I think what I’ve learned is that even on a social level and on a personal level, I like this personal communication with people, but I’ve learned to give myself some buffers. I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to let other people handle things.
Bryant: Let’s talk a bit about hiring.
Ashwell: At the store level, certainly there’s an aesthetic talent that needs to come into play. Can they take orders but, at the same time, do they also have an aesthetic flair? Sincerity is an important quality to me. It’s very important that when my staff communicate with the outside world, that it doesn’t just look like they’re selling a manual.
Bryant: And what about somebody who’s at your offices and isn’t interacting with the customers?
Ashwell: I would want to get a feeling that they’re good communicators — that’s not more important than ability, but definitely way up there for me.
Bryant: What turns you off in interviews?
Ashwell: One thing is a kind of arrogance, the “yeah-yeah” people who think they know everything. I’ve seen people who just think they know it all, and then it happens over and over again. And that’s where I just think, “Oh no.” Because that, to me, is a character quality. It comes from a place of fear and wanting to please, or maybe thinking that you know everything.
I think the words “I don’t know”’ — in a positive way — is a little phrase much avoided, and I don’t really know why. I just turned 50 and there’s still plenty I don’t know and that’s something that I often tell my staff. If you don’t know something, it’s just so much better to say so. Guessing can cause all kinds of problems. But the point is not to be passive either, and to take responsibility and go find out what it is.
In response to the question “What kind of a world are we dealing with?” here is a portion of Jonathan Gosling’s response, synthesized from several sources.
It’s a worldly world. We are getting used to seeing how all the parts interconnect: global warming will create vast diasporas of displaced people, so we will all be faced with radical challenges to our shared identity – Who is to say who belongs here if we have collectively destroyed there?
Equally stimulating will be will be the opportunities offered by a population with family connections all over the world. Previous diasporas have created hugely valuable networks of trusted clan members, but many of them living in ghettoes, taking generations to assimilate and belong in their new-found homes. But with so many more people on the move, how will we sustain communities and shared values and traditions?
Historically, when communities are faced with twin challenges of asserting a common identity and seizing opportunities for improvement, they have tended to throw up charismatic leaders – and have often resorted to xenophobic scapegoating and military adventures, usually ending badly. Can we prepare and promote a wiser and more caring variety of leader?
Note: Gisling also thinks ours is a wiki world and a wounded world. I share those insights in separate posts.
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Jonathan Gosling is Professor of Leadership and Director of the Centre for Leadership Studies at University of Exeter Business School since 2002. He is currently leading the worldwide launch of the One Planet MBA while conducting research into emerging concepts of leadership, extending earlier work on the distribution and practice of leadership in Higher Education. Other on-going research includes the study of change and continuity in large organizations, and the processes by which leadership is legitimized in minority communities.
I have just read Steven Johnson’s latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation published by Riverhead Books/Penguin (2010), and was delighted to read the especially informative appendix in which he provides a Chronology of Key Innovations, 1400-2000.
Here are the first five:
Double-Entry Accounting (1300-1400): First codified by the Franciscan friar and mathematician Luca Paciola in 1494, the double-entry method had been used for at least two centuries by Italian bankers and merchants. Some evidence suggests that the technique was developed by Islamic entrepreneurs who passed it on to the Italians through the trade hubs of Venice and Genoa.
Printing Press (1440): While elements of the printing press, including the concept of movable type, date back to earlier Chinese and Korean inventors, the first true printing press that combined the screw press [previously used to crush grapes] and metallic movable type was created by Johannes Gutenberg circa 1440.
Concave Lens (1451): Humans have used lenses to magnify images and to start fires for thousands of years, but the first used of the concave lens to treat myopia is attributed to the polymath German cardinal Nicholas of Cusa.
Parachute (1483): Leonardo da Vinci sketched the original design for the parachute in the margin of a notebook. The first physical test of the design occurred in 1783, when Louis- Sébastien Lenormand leapt from the Montpelier Observatory in France and, with the aid of his primitive parachute, landed without injury. In 2000, an exact replica of de Vinci’s parachute was constructed and tested, and proved to function.
Terrestrial Globe (1492): The Nuremberg-based mapmaker Martin Behaim constructed the first terrestrial globe in the early 1490s, after returning from extensive journeys in West Africa. He called it the Erdapfel, which translates to “earth apple.”
If you share my keen interest in the origins of transformational devices (be they creations or innovations), you will enjoy reading these books:
Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology
Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud
Scientific American Inventions and Discoveries: All the Milestones in Ingenuity From the Discovery of Fire to the Invention of the Microwave Oven
Rodney Carlisle and Scientific American
The Fire of Invention: Civil Society and the Future of the Corporation
The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created
The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Morten T. Hansen and Scott Tapp for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
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Companies need an executive responsible for integrating the enterprise — a Chief Collaboration Officer (CCO). Increasingly, companies are embracing collaboration as part of their strategy to grow, by cross-selling products to existing customers and innovating through the recombination of existing technologies. But this won’t work unless employees work effectively across silos — across sales offices, business units, sales, product development, and marketing.
And who’s in charge of such an effort? In most companies today, senior executives are still responsible for their
unit — sales, marketing, HR, division A, division B. Yes, they are told to be team players and work with their peers. But that is often not enough. You need someone to look after the whole, by taking a holistic view of what is needed to get employees to work across silos.
You may say, “sure, that’s the CEO’s role.” True. But the CEO cannot afford to spend too much time on it. The CEO needs someone more dedicated to the effort — a Chief Collaboration Officer. So who should that be? We’re not proposing a new person — yet another (expensive) executive in the C-suite. We think that a current C-level executive should assume the mantle. Here are five candidates:
The current CIO. This is a perfect area for the Chief Information Officer to go beyond IT, step up, and take an enterprise-wide view. If you’re a CIO looking to broaden your role and drive value across the company, this is your opportunity.
The current HR head. Good collaboration requires the right incentives, performance evaluations, promotion criteria, and people development. So it’s only natural for the head of HR to take on the CCO role; that entails going beyond HR issues and working with others, such as the CIO, to craft a holistic solution.
The current COO. Of course, if your company has a COO that oversees many parts of the business, adding the Chief Collaboration Officer role is a natural extension.
The current CFO. Now, this is less obvious. Why get the numbers person on board here? Well, collaboration is first and foremost about creating economic value; it’s a strategic search for good cross-company projects. Many CFOs also oversee the strategy department, so why not add cross-company strategic activities to the portfolio?
The current head of strategy. Good collaboration means finding and prioritizing areas of synergy, an exercise well suited for the executive responsible for the overall strategy of the firm.
Other candidates may also exist, such as Chief Technology Officers in high-tech companies. Some senior executives are less suited for the job: head of sales, head of countries, and business unit heads. They tend to be too focused on their primary role.
So what should a Chief Collaboration Officer do?
Let’s say Brian, the current CIO, assumes the role. First, Brian needs to work with the CFO and head of strategy to identify the strategic opportunities for collaboration across the company — that is, to establish the business case for collaboration. He also needs to involve business unit leaders and head of sales to craft goals related to collaboration initiatives — for example, how much sales they will generate. Then Brian needs to walk over to the head of HR to make sure that performance evaluations, bonuses, and promotions are depended on good collaborative behaviors. That is, he needs to align the entire organization to realize the business case.
Soon Brian will discover the truth about the Chief Collaboration Office role: while he is responsible for driving the collaboration effort, he needs to do so by working with his peers. His job is to craft a holistic solution to collaboration, one that involves strategy, HR, product development, sales solutions, marketing, and IT. In short, he needs to be a masterful collaborator. Choosing a CCO is less about which role a person currently occupies and more about whether he or she has the skills. Pick the best collaborator.
So, do you think you need a Chief Collaboration Officer, and who do you think it should be?
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Morten T. Hansen is a management professor at University of California, Berkeley, and INSEAD, France, and the author of Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity and Reap Big Results (Harvard Business Press). Scott Tapp is Senior Vice President and General Manager for Global Collaboration Services at PGi.
To check out my interview of Hansen, please click here.
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Emily Lawson and Colin Price for The McKinsey Quarterly’s website. To read the complete article, check out out resources, and/or sing on for a free but limited-access subscription, please click here.
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Companies can transform the attitudes and behavior of their employees by applying psychological breakthroughs that explain why people think and act as they do.
Over the past 15 or so years, programs to improve corporate organizational performance have become increasingly common. Yet they are notoriously difficult to carry out. Success depends on persuading hundreds or thousands of groups and individuals to change the way they work, a transformation people will accept only if they can be persuaded to think differently about their jobs. In effect, CEOs must alter the mind-sets of their employees—no easy task.
CEOs could make things easier for themselves if, before embarking on complex performance-improvement programs, they determined the extent of the change required to achieve the business outcomes they seek. Broadly speaking, they can choose among three levels of change. On the most straightforward level, companies act directly to achieve outcomes, without having to change the way people work; one example would be divesting noncore assets to focus on the core business. On the next level of complexity, employees may need to adjust their practices or to adopt new ones in line with their existing mind-sets in order to reach, say, a new bottom-line target. An already “lean” company might, for instance, encourage its staff to look for new ways to reduce waste, or a company committed to innovation might form relationships with academics to increase the flow of ideas into the organization and hence the flow of new products into the market.
But what if the only way a business can reach its higher performance goals is to change the way its people behave across the board? Suppose that it can become more competitive only by changing its culture fundamentally—from being reactive to proactive, hierarchical to collegial, or introspective to externally focused, for instance. Since the collective culture of an organization, strictly speaking, is an aggregate of what is common to all of its group and individual mind-sets, such a transformation entails changing the minds of hundreds or thousands of people. This is the third and deepest level: cultural change.
Linking all of the major discoveries in programs to raise performance has effected startling changes in the way that employees behave
In such cases, CEOs will likely turn for help to psychology. Although breakthroughs have been made in explaining why people think and behave as they do, these insights have in general been applied to business only piecemeal and haven’t had a widespread effect. Recently, however, several companies have found that linking all of the major discoveries together in programs to improve performance has brought about startling changes in the behavior of employees—changes rooted in new mind-sets. Performance-improvement programs that apply all of these ideas in combination can be just as chaotic and hard to lead as those that don’t. But they have a stronger chance of effecting long-term changes in business practice and thus of sustaining better outcomes.
Four conditions for changing mind-sets
[Here is the first.]
Employees will alter their mind-sets only if they see the point of the change and agree with it—at least enough to give it a try. The surrounding structures (reward and recognition systems, for example) must be in tune with the new behavior. Employees must have the skills to do what it requires. Finally, they must see people they respect modeling it actively. Each of these conditions is realized independently; together they add up to a way of changing the behavior of people in organizations by changing attitudes about what can and should happen at work.
A purpose to believe in
In 1957 the Stanford social psychologist Leon Festinger published his theory of cognitive dissonance, the distressing mental state that arises when people find that their beliefs are inconsistent with their actions—agnostic priests would be an extreme example. Festinger observed in the subjects of his experimentation a deep-seated need to eliminate cognitive dissonance by changing either their actions or their beliefs.
The implication of this finding for an organization is that if its people believe in its overall purpose, they will be happy to change their individual behavior to serve that purpose—indeed, they will suffer from cognitive dissonance if they don’t. But to feel comfortable about change and to carry it out with enthusiasm, people must understand the role of their actions in the unfolding drama of the company’s fortunes and believe that it is worthwhile for them to play a part. It isn’t enough to tell employees that they will have to do things differently. Anyone leading a major change program must take the time to think through its “story”—what makes it worth undertaking—and to explain that story to all of the people involved in making change happen, so that their contributions make sense to them as individuals.
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It is neither easy nor straightforward to improve a company’s performance through a comprehensive program to change the behavior of employees by changing their mind-sets. No company should try to do so without first exhausting less disruptive alternatives for attaining the business outcome it desires. Sometimes tactical moves will be enough; sometimes new practices can be introduced without completely rethinking the corporate culture. But if the only way for a company to reach a higher plane of performance is to alter the way its people think and act, it will need to create the four conditions for achieving sustained change.
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About the Authors: Emily Lawson is an associate principal and Colin Price is a director in McKinsey’s London office.
Note: For those who have not as yet seen the brief video that demonstrates a selective attention test, I suggest that they do so now by clicking here.
I agree with Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons that just because we vividly experience some aspects of our world, especially those that are the focus of our attention, that does not mean that we process all of the detailed information around us. “In essence, we know how vividly we see some aspects of our world, but we are completely unaware of those aspects of our world that fall outside of that current focus of attention. Our vivid visual experience masks a striking mental blindness – we assume that visually distinctive or unusual objects will draw our attention, but in reality they go completely unnoticed.”
Vast amounts of scientific research reveal these redundantly verifiable insights:
1. Because we have limited attention resources, we usually see only what we expect to see; more often than not, we fail to see what we do not expect to see.
2. “Our neurological circuits for vision and attention are built for pedestrian speeds, not for driving speeds.”
3. We often have an illusion of memory: “the disconnect between how we think memory works and how it actually works.” That is, we tend to remember only what we expect to remember.
4. We often have an illusion of confidence. This causes us to overestimate our abilities, especially in relation to others; also, we tend to assume that people who seem confident are, and those who seem to lack confidence lack it.
5. Many of us have the illusion of knowledge: we believe we have wider and deeper understanding than in fact we do. Therefore, poor decisions are often made because we do not know what we think we know.
6. The illusion of knowledge can also involve others: we assume so-called “experts” know more, understand more, can do more and can do it better, etc. We are reassured by their self-confidence, although it may well be unjustified.
7. The illusion of cause can affect us three ways: we perceive repeating patterns in randomness as predictive of future events; we assume that events that happen together have a causal relationship when in fact the reality is coincidence; and we tend to assume that events that happen earlier cause events that happened (or appear to have happened) later.
8. The “Mozart Effect” is an example of the illusion of potential: Expand the brain’s capabilities by listening to Mozart’s music. This presupposes that (a) there is undeveloped potential, perhaps as much as 90%, and (b) the music of Mozart (a genius) will achieve the greatest improvement. In fact, “The benefits of [physical] exercise [such as walking at a reasonable clip for 30 minutes or more a few times a week] are deeper than improvements in behavior and cognition.”
9. “Illusions result from mistaken judgments about our limitations, and it is these judgments that we must adjust.” Hence the importance of knowing the limits of our cognition so that we can redesign the “spaces” in which we function and thereby avoid the consequences of mistaken intuitions.
10. It is impossible to notice everything around us, much less process recognition of it, nor can we “readily dismiss our intuitive (and incorrect) beliefs about what captures our attention.” However, as indicated earlier, we can “proactively restructure our lives so that we are less likely to be misled by an illusion.”
However entertaining and instructive the film clip may be, this book is by no means an “easy read” and in fact should be re-read at least once if not more. In that event, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons will generously reward the careful reader. I conclude by presuming to offer three suggestions: First, as you begin to read The Invisible Gorilla, be receptive to unexpected insights that require you to change many of your assumptions about how you perceive, process, remember, and think about your visual world. Second, don’t assume that Chabris and Simons are “experts” simply because they have written this book and seem confident about what they affirm and what they challenge. Focus on sharpening your awareness and increasing your capacities to absorb and digest what you observe. Finally, once you have increased your understanding, do not fall victim to the illusion of knowledge. Continually challenge each of your assumptions. Your mind is, literally, a work in progress.